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PFAS contaminates in US drinking water systems serving 19 million people

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  • PFAS contaminates in US drinking water systems serving 19 million people

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The known extent of contamination of American communities with the highly toxic fluorinated compounds known as PFAS continues to grow at an alarming rate. As of March 2019, 610 locations in 43 states are now known to be affected, including drinking water systems serving an estimated 19 million people.

The latest update of an interactive map by EWG and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute, at Northeastern University, documents publicly known PFAS pollution in public water systems and military bases, airports, industrial plants and dumps, and firefighter training sites. 

PFAS compounds are a family of thousands of chemicals used in a wide array of consumer and industrial applications – nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, grease-resistant food packaging, firefighting foam and many more. Studies link very low concentrations of some PFAS chemicals to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened childhood immunity and other health problems. PFAS chemicals pollute the blood of virtually all Americans, including newborn babies, and they persist forever in the environment.

Where in the United States?

  • Michigan is the state with the most locations, with 192. The state’s PFAS contamination problem is severe, but the high number also reflects the state’s ongoing comprehensive multi-agency effort to test for PFAS. Michigan environmental officials have estimated that more than 11,000 sites in the state may be contaminated with PFAS. California has 47 known contamination sites and New Jersey has 43.
  • The map shows contamination of 117 military sites, including 77 military airports, a legacy of the Pentagon’s 50-year history of using firefighting foam with PFAS.
  • The estimate of 19 million Americans served by PFAS-contaminated water systems is imprecise, since public water systems don’t know how many people live or work at the addresses they serve. But the number may be much higher. An EWG analysis of unreleased Environmental Protection Agency test data estimated that more than 1,500 drinking water systems, serving up to 110 million Americans, may be contaminated with PFAS chemicals.

What is the government doing?

The EPA has known of PFAS’ health hazards for two decades but has failed to set an enforceable legal limit for drinking water or standards for cleanup of contaminated sites. The agency recently released a so-called PFAS action plan, but it is woefully inadequate. The EPA plan will not stop the introduction of new PFAS chemicals, end the use of PFAS in everyday products, alert Americans to the risk of PFAS pollution or clean up contaminated drinking water supplies. (See the complete list of EWG’s recommendations for federal action on PFAS.)

A bipartisan PFAS task force has been formed in Congress. Several PFAS bills have been introduced, including legislation to force the EPA to set a legal limit for all PFAS in drinking water, and to add PFAS to chemicals covered by the Superfund cleanup law.

In the absence of EPA action, states are taking the lead. A number of states have set legal limits or health-based guidelines for PFAS chemicals that are much lower than the EPA’s non-binding advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, for PFOA, PFOS or both chemicals combined. Drawing on the best available research, EWG scientists recommend a drinking water standard of 1 ppt for any individual PFAS chemical, or the combined level of all PFAS chemicals.

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